Monkey See, Monkey Move: The Importance of Family Exercise


jenn bun

In March 2004, then Surgeon General of the United States, Richard H. Carmona, M.D., stated, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” The childhood obesity trends have not improved over the last decade, and this statement gets closer to becoming factual with each day. Both dietary changes and exercise can be used to battle these trends, and the focus here is on the latter.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard that parents should be limiting their children’s screen time and time spent seated, and should be encouraging their kids to move more. In fact, everyone can benefit from limiting their seated time. Screen time, including television, computer, tablet, and phone time, should be limited to no more than two hours each day. For parents, this is likely difficult because many of us spend time sitting at a desk for our work, so then a conscious effort should be made to limit our social media screen time. For kids, efforts should be made to reserve screen time homework (depending on the child’s age) and educational activities. If your child is young and has little or no homework, then their screen time should be far less than two hours. I found that once I started to limit screen time for my family, we automatically had more free to time to get up and get moving, and my problem quickly became “What do I do to fill this time?”

Kids can often be difficult to please, but they also like to be led by example. If we are going to ask our children to get off Instagram or stop playing video games and go outside, then we should be prepared to do the same, and do it first. If kids see that their parents are making fitness and health a priority, they will likely do the same thing without even knowing it. The key idea here is that children must see their parents exercising, and they will likely follow along.

Here’s a few thoughts and ideas to help you get started.

Walking, running, and biking. Older children can either walk/run/bike with you, or find alternative transportation using skates or a scooter (battery-powered and electric vehicles for your children will defeat the point of what you are doing). If the kids are too young to walk or ride, then take them along in the stroller. This may seem like it is defeating the purpose because then they are sitting, but it isn’t because they are still witnessing your behavior. Don’t live in a neighborhood that safely allows these activities? Find a park and get moving. It may take more time and effort that way, but it will be well worth it. I also like to do some cardio with my child that doesn’t require much space like marching in place or doing Jumping Jacks.

Strength training. Seeing a two-year-old mimic doing a push-up because Mom did a push-up is one of the cutest things ever. Children and adolescents that are still growing should only use body weight, light weights, or bands for resistance. This may mean that the exercise is slightly easier, so they can simply perform a higher number of repetitions. I have made a list of several exercises that focus on specific body parts. If your plan is strength train 2-3 times each week, then you should choose 2-3 exercises from each area below. I highly recommend incorporating both upper and lower body motions into the same lift (e.g. lunges with an overhead press). This will engage more areas of the brain, improve motor control, and get your heart rate up too. Don’t’ worry about sets and reps too much either.

Just work until you are fatigued, take a break, and try to do some more. Don’t have any weights? Not to worry, you can use lightweight household items like water bottles and canned goods.
• Lower body and back
o Squats
o Lunges – you can do walking or reverse lunges
o Leg lifts
o Hamstring curls on a physio-ball
o Chin-ups
o Pull-ups
o Rows
o Hyperextension on a physio-ball
o Step-ups onto a bench/chair/box
• Upper body
o Push-ups – you can do standard, narrow with elbows tight to your body, moving side-to-side
o Bicep curls
o Triceps kickbacks
o Overhead press
o Front arm raises
o Side arm raises

Stop and play. I often am trying to be efficient in everything I do, and this takes the fun out of exercise. Additionally, many adults do activities for an extended time period without any change in intensity or type of activity, and kids usually don’t find that fun either. When exercising with my child, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to have fun with it. A playground is a great place to provide a different stimulus for both parents and kids. This doesn’t give parents an excuse to sit and catch up on email or social media. If your kids are old enough that they don’t have to be monitored on the playground, then you should keep moving. You can continue to walk/run around and near the playground so that you can still keep an eye on them. If you don’t have the option for a playground, then work in some fun races or a game of chase or tag from time to time. Changing between high and low-intensity activities makes the workout more interesting for kids and parents alike.

Jennifer Bunn, Ph.D.